The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations

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The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations is recognised internationally as one of the most influential bodies in management thought. In this article we look at the history and development of the Tavistock, from its formation in 1947 to the present day, with references to its key work and suggestions for further reading. This article was written with Juliet Scott, Business Development Manager at the Tavistock Institute.

The Tavistock Institute is a not-for-profit multi-disciplinary social science organisation which offers organisational consultancy, action research and evaluation research alongside professional development courses. It publishes two peer-reviewed journals with Sage Publications: Human Relations and Evaluation.

Early years, 1947-1957

The Tavistock Institute of Human Relations (TIHR) was incorporated in 1947, emerging from its early years as a social department within the Tavistock Clinic.These origins provide a psychoanalytic perspective from which came a focus on how work was undertaken and a commitment to working issues through, which continues to this day in consultancy assignments and professional development work. An important and ongoing early influence was Kurt Lewin and his pioneering action research approach which is used at the Institute, both in the research-based approach to consultancy and in the often engaged and learning-focused evaluation studies. Action research fitted well with the Institute's focus on paying attention to how staff approached their projects and the idea of collaborating with participants rather than studying them from a distance. Perhaps most important was a systems approach to working with clients, another perspective shared with Lewin.

From the late 1940s and early 1950s, Tavistock Institute staff collaborated with those in industry. Two early strands of work had remarkable impact on organisational theory:

1. Elliot Jacques, in studies in the Glacier Metal Company, identified culture as a key element for intervention in organisational life.

2. Eric Trist, in collaboration with the ex-miner Ken Bamforth, discovered what later came to be termed by Trist and Emery, socio-technical systems (STS) design, in the long-wall coalmining studies which noted the requirement for loose rather than tight management when faced with the need for innovation. Ken Rice introduced the STS design characteristics into cotton weaving mills in Ahmedabad in India, with immediate impact and, in association with Eric Miller, generated further understanding of organisations as task systems and sentient systems, both of which needed managing.

These two approaches found ready audiences in those developing social science approaches to organisations. The postwar period provided fertile soil for these developments in industrial sociology and industrial psychology both in the USA and in the UK where Lou Davies at UCL was an important collaborator. In Europe, and particularly in Scandinavia, willing collaborators emerged, including the Works Research Institute in Norway. Einar Thorsrud was invited from there to apply the approach in other Scandinavian countries.

A third approach developed by Trist and Emery considered the organisation in its environment, which they described in different ways, including the turbulent environment. This concept has a broad resonance and is still in use in organisational studies, for example where ideas of complex systems and emergent structures are studied and drawn upon. The spread of these new ideas generated further applications, often involving the active participation of a wide range of stakeholders in planning their environments and futures.

Systems theory was from the beginning a strong influence, whether from von Bertalanffy or the open systems approach suggested by Melanie Klein, and provided useful insight into organisational life; as expounded in, for example, Ken Rice and Eric Miller's Systems of organisation. Gestalt notions of systems, with their attention to the interrelation between the parts and the whole and the boundary between the inside and the outside, were especially adapted to organisational studies and interventions. The notion of systems ideas remain influential in organisational consulting approaches at the Institute today, though of course there have been significant developments both within the Institute and beyond in the intervening years, and the application of systems theory in the evaluation research field at the Institute remains at its heart.

Bion's work on the psychoanalytic theory of groups was further developed in an organisational context through Jacques' identification of the impact of social defences against anxiety, which was vividly brought to life in Isabel Menzies Lyth's study of nursing, where rigid routines and uniforms were cited as providing such defences. Further development of the psychoanalytic approach to organisations at the Institute saw the identification of systems psychodynamics: the understanding that, as in families, organisational life has an unconscious dimension of connectedness.

All these streams of work were reported in the journal Human Relations, which was an early collaboration with Lewin, with longer accounts finding their way into the books published by the Tavistock Publications imprint.

The establishment of the Leicester Conference, 1957-1980

The psychoanalytic tradition was practiced at the Institute in effect, even by those like Emery, who were dismissive or hostile towards it, through the working through of democratic organisational life. This tradition was embodied from 1957 onwards in what came to be an annual group relations training conference, originally in collaboration with Leicester University and remaining on that site to this day. Essentially an extension of Bion's self-directed groups, participants were brought together in a temporary organisation, designed by Ken Rice. A further influence came from the work of the National Training Laboratory in Bethel in the United States, where a loosely associated form of group work was undertaken initially by Lewin and later by his associates. The working through to which Tavistock Institute practitioners were committed, nevertheless provoked splits in how this kind of work was undertaken, such as classic Leicester Conferences that continued under the directorship of Eric Miller, and the dual task conferences offer from Harold Bridger. Despite the splits, group relations conferences using the Miller and Bridger models aroused much international interest and were exported across the world. Today many group relations conferences, often supported by the Tavistock Institute, take place every year.

While organisational studies provided the main focus of Tavistock publications, the action research approach at the Institute brought coherence to a broader range of activities, such as Elizabeth Bott's work on family life and Elizabeth Richardson's account of school life. There were often, and still are, philosophical, theoretical debates about the differences between action and research, and between action research and consultancy, commented on by Frank Heller's term research action, and about how these are practiced. The group known as the Institute for Operations Research provided an important example of action which drew on a range of research activities. In this setting, John Friend and others developed an approach to strategic planning at the local government partnership level which underwent rapid growth during the 1970s, as the Institute's work in the manufacturing sector tailed off. Miller's studies with Geraldine Gwynne, and subsequently also Tim Dartington on attitudes to the disabled, similarly applied Tavistock ideas to organisations and beyond. There are many other examples.

The advent of evaluation, 1980-2000

From 1980, Elliot Stern, who had earlier been involved in manufacturing studies and interventions in the chemical industry in Ireland, in British Leyland and in the merchant marine with Pat Quinn and later Frances Abraham, introduced evaluation research as a major activity within the Institute. Much of the TIHR's early evaluation work drew on approaches naturally arising from TIHR traditions, such as stakeholder evaluation and support for self-evaluation. Evaluation research, begun by Stern and Miller and involving the practitioner focus of Dione Hills, continued with a community health focus, and was joined by local and regional development with the arrival of John Kelleher. Over time, these studies brought in renewing influences from social scientists such as Habermas and his followers, as Stern strengthened and broadened the theoretical underpinnings of the research, together with Joe Cullen and Elizabeth Sommerlad. In particular, new understandings of learning, how it occurs and can be brought about in diverse settings such as labour market activities, work-related learning, informal learning, and ICT, began to pervade evaluation studies from the arrival of Carlos Frade. The Evaluation, Development and Review Unit continued to provide a home for more engaged, sometimes organisationally focused studies, involving Frances Abraham, Dione Hills and John Kelleher. Elliot Stern remains editor of the journal Evaluation, which he started in 1994.

During the late 1980s and 1990s, organisational consultancy at the Institute was inspired by the continued activities of Eric Miller, practicing both the system psychodynamics oriented approach and the socio-technical systems design approach of the Tavistock's earlier traditions. In 1986 Miller was joined in this work by Jean Neumann who continued to weave the Tavistock traditions of organisational consultancy into new offers. Richard Holti joined them, which led on a substantial action research project in collaboration with construction industry supply chains in the Building Down Barriers project.

Miller, Holti and Neumann set up a professional development offer at Masters level called Advanced Organisational Consulting, which combined consultancy competence, systems psychodynamics and organisational theory. It ran for 14 successful years and led to the creation of the AOC Society, which is the alumni of graduates and programme practitioners. Further professional development offers at the Institute include a Certificate in Coaching for Leadership and Professional Development, a Practitioner Certificate in Consulting and Change (P3C) and the MSc in Leading Public Service Change and Organisational Development designed and delivered by the University of Birmingham in collaboration with the Tavistock Institute; as well as more customised offers such as the political coaching course for local politicians for the LGA, tailored group relations offers, and a TIHR-certificated course in working through crisis for high risk teams.

The Tavistock Institute today

Consultancy at the Institute today continues the systems psychodynamics approach, embodied by Mannie Sher, Eric Miller's successor as Director of the Group Relations programme since 1997, and the Institute's Director, Dr Eliat Aram, who joined the Institute in 2008 and refreshes and integrates the its offerings through her academic background in complexity and management theory and a practice in Gestalt psychotherapy and supervision, alongside her group relations and OD experience and training. Under her leadership and with a diverse and highly experienced team of colleagues, the plurality of the Institute's skills is now applied more ably by the Institute's staff and with its clients. Governance reform in local authorities and the focus towards strategic partnership working has been a recent stream of TIHR consultancy work introduced into the Institute by its first Director, Phil Swann (2005-2008). It continues to be at the forefront of the Institute's work under the leadership of Frances Abraham and Camilla Child who bring their political science background to broaden organisational approaches. This work has further developed recently to assisting local authorities with behaviour change and meeting national indicators, specifically in teenage pregnancy. In 2009 Mannie Sher, together with Alison Gill of Crelos, contributed to the Walker Review on the regulation of banks in its Annex 4: Psychological and behavioural elements in board performance, a contribution which has led to the creation of a Board Evaluation company (BValco) offering a novel and multi disciplinary approach to Board Evaluation emphasising the importance of behaviour and group dynamics - both those which are immediately observable and those which are otherwise under the surface.

Evaluation studies remain a vibrant and valuable work stream and the work remains state-of-the art, using a theory of change approach and action learning sets as well as more routine qualitative and quantitative methods. Led by Judy Corlyon, Dione Hills, Kerstin Junge and a strong team of dynamic researchers, streams of work include: community health and wellbeing initiatives - for example social inclusion programmes with a wide range of activities, often participatory, involving children and young people; transport evaluation; studies in e-learning and higher education; and European research and evaluation work. TIHR presence in Europe continues through a number of avenues including the longstanding European Evaluation Consortium (EPEC) and other framework contracts, as well as work with the European Patent Office and the European Central Bank. Organisational studies and learning approaches continue, often led by Joe Cullen and using approaches informed by Habermas and Foucault which emphasise the importance and impact of cultural logic, lifeworld analysis and disciplinary discourse in evaluation, research and consultancy.

The Institute continues to be active in publishing, with recent papers and published work at the UK Evaluation Society, the European Evaluation Society, ISPSO, OPUS, the Social Research Association, the British Sociological Association and the British Psychological Association, to name a few. Institute staff are regularly invited to speak and present at International conferences in a range of areas of the Institute's work. Since 2000, senior Institute staff and associates have written or edited at least five books and a number of book chapters.

The Institute remains in a healthy position with its history of adapting and responding to change in society, politics and organisational culture whilst staying in touch with its core values. This is due to its ethos of building on its edifice of social science knowledge and skilled professionals as well as its professional staff's contemporary skills in the arts and media. With this richness the Institute remains an interesting place to work with and in. From time to time its constructive commentary and position on socio-political developments is also published in newspapers such as The Guardian and The Times, or on BBC Radio.

The following are all available from The British Library: type the title into the search box on the right to check availability.

Books and book chapters

Jaques, E. The changing culture of a factory. London: Tavistock Publications, 1951

Lewin, K. Field theory and experimentation in social psychology. In D. Cartwright, ed. Field theory in social science: selected theoretical papers. New York: Harper and Row, 1951

Rice, A.K. Productivity and social organisation. London: Tavistock Publications, 1958

Bion, W. Experiences in groups. London: Tavistock Publications, 1961

Rice, A. K. Learning for leadership. London: Tavistock Publications, 1965

Friend K. and Jessop W. Local government and strategic choice: an operational research approach to the processes of public planning. London: Tavistock Publications, 1969

Miller, E. and Rice, A. K. Systems of organisation. London: Tavistock Publications, 1970

Emery, F. and Trist, E. Towards a social ecology. London: Plenum Press, 1975

Trist, E. and Murray, H. (eds) The social engagement of social science: a Tavistock anthology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Three volume set:

  • Volume 1: The socio-psychological perspective, 1990. Includes Miller, E. Experiential learning in groups I: the development of the Leicester model.
  • Volume 2: The socio-technical perspective, 1993
  • Volume 3: A socio-ecological perspective, 1997

Miller, E. From dependency to autonomy: studies in organisation and change. London: Free Association Books, 1993

Sher, M. and Wiener, J. Psychotherapy and counselling in primary health care: a psychodynamic approach. London: Macmillan, 1998

Hills, D. and Child, C. Leadership in residential child care: evaluating qualification training. London: Wiley, 2000

Brunner, L., Nutkevitch, A. and Sher, M. eds. Group relations conferences: reviewing and exploring theory, design, role-taking and application. Volume 2. London: Karnac Books, 2006

Aram, E., Baxter, R. and Nutkevitch, A. eds. Adaptation and innovation: theory, design and role-taking in group relations conferences and their applications. Volume 3. London: Karnac Books, 2009

Whittle, S. and Izod, K. Mind-ful consulting. London: Karnac Books, 2009

Journal articles

Trist, E. and Bamforth, K. Some social and psychological consequences of the longwall method of coal getting. Human Relations, 4 (1) 1951, pp.3-38

Rice, A. K. Productivity and social organization in a Indian weaving shed: an examination of the socio-technical systems of an experimental automatic loomshed. Human Relations, 6 1953, pp.297-329

Trist, E. and Emery, F. The causal texture of organizational environments. Human Relations, 18 (1) 1965, pp.21-32

Menzies, I. The functioning of social systems and the defence against anxiety: a report on a study of the nursing
service of a general hospital. Human Relations, 3 (1) 1947, pp.95-121

Rice, A. K. Individual, group and intergroup processes. Human Relations, 22 (6) 1969, pp.565- 84


Abraham, F. Hilgendorf, L. and Welchman, R. Women and positive health care. London: Tavistock Institute, 1983

Sommerlad E. A guide to local evaluation. London: Tavistock Institute, 1992

Kelleher, J. Blackburn, J. and Nelson, A. ONE Delivery evaluation: case studies and staff research: preliminary report. Tavistock Institute, London, 1999

Kelleher, J. Batterbury, S. and Stern, E. The thematic evaluation of the partnership principle in the EU Structural Fund programmes 1994-1999 final report. Brussels: Commission of the European Communities, 1999

Abraham, F., Kelleher, J. and Tiris, M. A needs analysis of the Further Education sector for the Joint Information Systems Committee by the Learning and Skills Development Agency and The Tavistock Institute, London: JISC, 2001

Corlyon, J. and Hills, D. The parenting fund: evaluation of the fundholder model and sector provision. (DCSF Research Report RR089.) London: DCSF, 2009


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